Bryant approves state takeover of Aberdeen schools

Former Aberdeen School District Superintendent Chester Leigh (pictured) was fired in December 2011 for reportedly buying two vehicles for a new district-run security force without board approval. Leigh’s termination set off a chain of events that led to the state taking over the school district Friday and Gov. Phil Bryant removing the entire sitting school board.

JACKSON – (AP) How bad were management problems in the Aberdeen school district, where Gov. Phil Bryant approved a state takeover Friday?

Consider this example, cited in a state investigation, of how school board intervention in graduation decisions usually made by administrators helped cost the district its school resource officers:

Aberdeen school board members decided in spring 2011 to admit all comers to the Aberdeen High School graduation, instead of following the administration’s previous practice of giving each senior a limited number of tickets to invite guests. The board also mandated the ceremony move from the football field to the gymnasium, which holds fewer people. After people were left outside an overflowing gym, a school board member went outside to single out another person to be let in. Other locked-out relatives protested, culminating in a school resource officer using a stun gun to subdue one person.

The city of Aberdeen subsequently ended its agreement to provide school resource officers to the district, apparently because of the fracas. And in December, the board terminated then-Superintendent Chester Leigh, citing him for buying two vehicles for a new district-run security force without board approval.

It was the firing of Leigh and the district’s business manager on the same day that set off alarm bells for state authorities, leading to an investigation that found Aberdeen was violating 31 of 37 state accreditation standards.

Bryant ousted the current school board Friday, hours after the state Board of Education asked him to sweep aside the current leadership. The Board of Education approved hiring Bob Strebeck to act as conservator in the district, in place of a local superintendent.

Strebeck will be paid $170,000 a year, plus $29,000 in travel expenses. A retired Newton County administrator, Strebeck has been conservator in four other districts, most recently Sunflower County.

Strebeck could take control as early as Monday. The move abolishes the current school board, and state officials said the interim superintendent would be demoted to his former post of operations manager.

Bryant said in a statement that it was “imperative” for the state to take the reins of the district, which educates more than 1,400 students in parts of Monroe County.

“Accreditation violations, state and federal law violations and a continued pattern of poor student performance are unfortunate and will not be tolerated,” Bryant said in a statement. “The students and community of Aberdeen deserve better.”

Aberdeen becomes the eighth Mississippi school district under state control, joining Drew, Hazlehurst, Indianola, North Panola, Okolona, Sunflower County and Tate County.

State Superintendent Tom Burnham said the state’s first focus would be to examine the records of high school seniors to make sure each met the requirements for graduation. The state found that Aberdeen, despite what the state says is a 64 percent dropout rate, allowed some seniors to graduate last year even though their files didn’t document that they met graduation requirements.

Burnham said Strebeck has done well as a conservator in taking stock of districts and setting up new structures.

The state moved to take over the Aberdeen district after an investigation found rampant interference by local school board members in the affairs of the low-performing district.

In moving ahead, the state ignored Aberdeen Mayor-elect Cecil Belle’s request, in a Thursday letter to Burnham, to give him a chance to clean up the mess and retain local control. Belle wrote that he and the incoming Board of Aldermen would seek the resignations of the three school board members appointed by the city. Two other members are elected.

The state review indicated the school district was paying for home Internet service for school board members, a possible ethics violation. Burnham said he wasn’t aware of any criminal or state auditor’s investigation into Aberdeen.

The inquiry also found that the board’s hiring, firing and promotion decisions were influenced by a “system of favoritism and retaliation.” The state says that at least two board members “frequently” visited schools as if they were supervising teachers and that board members took complaints from employees.

The state said Aberdeen didn’t follow federal law on special education and must repay $215,000 in federal money. The state said Aberdeen would also have to repay $52,755 in state money, because the district didn’t document time worked by some employees.

The state found that one elementary school lacked a librarian and that high school students were getting no career and college counseling. High school science labs were marked “closed until further notice” in March and no students had gotten lab time this year.

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